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Eric Jackson hosts joyful jazz celebration at Regattabar

Susan Saccoccia | 8/8/2012, 3:06 p.m.

Grammy-winning pianist Laurence Hobgood performed last week at Regattabar with tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, drummer Jaren Schonig and bassist Matthew Rybicki.


WGBH’s Eric Jackson hosted pianist Laurence Hobgood’s quartet last week at the Regattabar. (Eric Antoniou photos)

Weekday nights haven’t been the same for Greater Boston jazz fans since July 6, when WGBH-FM pulled the plug on the 8pm-12am jazz shows of Eric Jackson (Monday through Thursday) and Steve Schwartz (Fridays). The PBS station replaced their five nights of distinguished jazz programming — mainstays for three decades — with talk radio.

So when Jackson hosted Grammy winning pianist Laurence Hobgood and his quartet at the Regattabar last Thursday night, his first public appearance since the station compressed his weeknight show to weekends, the evening opened with the air of a good-natured wake—a mix of joyful reunion, grief and hope of afterlife.

Hoots of welcome greeted Jackson, who quipped, “It’s about eight o’clock. Shouldn’t I be starting my show now?”

In an interview, Jackson said, “I’m still hopeful that something more will come up. Perhaps Steve and I will be able to do something in addition to what’s going on now.”

Midway through a moving first set, Hobgood weighed in on what he described as “the jazz radio issue.” “Jazz is a complex art form,” Hobgood said, “and it needs expert curators like Jackson to develop its listeners.” His comment prompted shout-outs to Schwartz, who was in the audience.

Such knowledge only develops over time, observed Hobgood, whose career testifies to enduring relationships. He has been the pianist for vocalist Kurt Elling for 17 years and also the singer’s music director. With Elling, he shared the 2010 Grammy award for Best Vocal Jazz Record.

Accompanying Hobgood at the Regattabar were tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, drummer Jaren Schonig and bassist Matthew Rybicki.

Evoking sax great Yusef Lateef with his statuesque presence and the warm depth of his tone, Greene breathed long, sweet notes to open the first of Hobgood’s searching compositions.

Schonig’s deft percussive accompaniment rose to charging attack when summoned and never ceased to provide rich texture. In lithe duets with Hobgood, Rybicki matched the pianist in delicacy and rhythmic pulse.

With his white crew cut, black spectacles and black suit, Hobgood has the look of a hip monk. Ascetic in appearance, he is a sensuous musician who weaves an alluring blend of contemplative lyricism and hard bop energy. His compositions unfold like essays, harnessing the power of jazz, the great reconciler, to bring together seemingly opposing forces.

Also articulate with the spoken word, Hobgood introduced each of his compositions and placed them in the context of his life. The first, “Shirakumo No Michi (White Cloud Way),” was inspired by Lama Anagarika Govinda’s memoir of a pilgrimage through Tibet, “Way of the White Cloud.” The next, an aural travelogue through passages of thunder and contemplative quiet and ecstasy, culminated in serene resolution.“Song of the Forgotten Land,” reflected his brother’s slow recovery from a debilitating stroke.

“Prayer for the Enemy” interwove gentle, melodic phrasings with a muscular solo by Greene and a spare duet between Hobgood and bassist Rybicki that explored the theme’s intense undercurrents.

Hobgood extended his easy conversation with the audience to include one of his collaborators, Robert Pinsky, Boston University professor and, from 1997 to 2000, U.S. poet laureate. Replacing Greene at the microphone to recite three of his poems in a syncopated, singsong style, his legs bending with the beat, Pinsky began with his concise and rhythmic “Samurai Song,” a meditation on joyful resilience in the face of loss.

Hobgood closed his 75-minute set with “Tumbleweed,” a composition by sax player Michael Brecker, who completed his last CD two weeks before his death from leukemia in 2007. Although he was dying, Brecker was “at his super ultra baddest,” said Hobgood, who with his quartet went out in a blaze. Greene played the last note with an insolent lick of his horn.